Dasul (Yoo Hae-jeong) is a nine-year-old girl who suffers from autism, or more specifically savant syndrome.
Living with her squid-selling grandmother and almost always drunken uncle in a small seaside community, she spends her days travelling round the town keeping a check on goings on through her binoculars and drawing pictures in crayon on random building walls, while her evenings largely consist of watching and re-watching her favourite animation about a little girl and her snowman friend on her family's old and dilapidated video cassette recorder; all the while waiting and hoping desperately for snow to fall outside.
When that winter snow finally does arrive, Dasul immediately sets about excitedly building a snowman friend of her very own complete with wings so it can fly; at the same time switching her artistic endeavours from drawing on walls in crayon to daubing large areas of houses and buildings with black paint.
However, while her family assumes that this change is simply random and caused by her autism, they couldn't be more wrong. For, Dasul is on a creative 'mission', determined that nothing, but nothing, will prevent her from achieving her artistic goal...
Dasul's condition is such that her speech is largely reduced to repeated short statements consisting of only a couple of words - "Angry!... Video!... Angry!... Video!" when her family's VCR breaks down; or her mantra "Snow is falling... Snow is falling" as she watches her favourite animation while rocking gently back and forth; etc - requiring director Park Chul-soon to focus attention far more on her actions to explain her character.
In the early stages of Lovable, this outwardly appears as simply a detailing of Dasul's day-to-day limitations - her frustrated tantrums (complete with screaming and physical altercation) at being unable to fully get her points across and/or not being paid attention to as well as the difficulties faced by her uncle and grandmother in dealing with all of the above - but even here Park Chul-soon subtly sows the seeds that gradually lift the veil of her condition and introduce viewers to the incredible, and indeed lovable, little girl who hides beneath; helped by just a few bright and cheery animation mattes placed over Dasul's view through her binoculars.
‘Lovable’ moves from showing Dasul only from an outside perspective to gradually open a window (if you will) into her thoughts in one scene in particular: As she eats a meal alone, we see her pour milk on rice in a bowl then begin to scoop it out and throw it above her head, and as we’ve already had a fair amount of insight into her disability we naturally assume this is just her acting out again.
However, no sooner does that thought cross our minds than director Park beautifully switches perspective to above Dasul’s head - showing the little clumps of milk-sodden rice falling in slow motion like snow, exactly how the smiling Dasul sees them. Thus, in one fell swoop, it’s abundantly clear that not only does the 'snow' and the animation of the snowman she loves so much have a far larger part to play in proceedings than previously thought but also that Dasul has a definite and determined plan to make that story a reality. From this point on we travel with her on her journey to do so, almost as companions, clear in the knowledge that every single one of her actions has a purpose and a well thought out reason behind it.
Savant syndrome is a neurological condition in which sufferers exhibit extreme autism while excelling in a specific area to almost prodigy level; be it musical, mathematical or, as in Dasul’s case, artistic. As such, Lovable repeatedly references Dasul virtually covering walls in incredibly accomplished crayon drawings, but while those around her are shown to be continually exasperated by her ‘graffiti’ it is always with an understanding, loving heart. In fact, Park Chul-soon successfully uses this element to bring gentle humour to the mix on several occasions (for example: A building owner knocking Dasul’s crayons to the ground and chastising her for drawing on his wall while Dasul quietly picks them up one-by-one fully intent on moving elsewhere to create another artwork as soon as the admonishment concludes; or the method by which Dasul’s grandmother deals with a woman who complains about her drawings and suggests Dasul should be put in a mental home; to name but two).
Not only that, but her early drawings are so colourful and beautiful that when she switches to (seemingly randomly) daubing large areas with black paint after having built her snowman friend, viewers are left in no doubt whatsoever that something deeply artistic lies at the core of that decision.
The concluding scene in Lovable reveals all and is frankly all the more beautiful and uplifting by the fact that audiences knew something deeply artistic was coming even if they didn’t know exactly what form it would take.
In the detailing of a story of a little girl largely from her perspective, Lovable will no doubt draw comparisons to Kim So-yong’s Treeless Mountain (2008) - even the trailers of both films have similarities in the showing of a scene in which the main character runs across town accompanied by gentle music - but while both are exemplary films, I would almost go as far as to say that Lovable delves more deeply into the main character’s psyche by focusing almost exclusively on Dasul above all others, and considering the fact that our heroine is outwardly rather uncommunicative that really is an incredible achievement.
That said, the supporting cast do have a vital part to play in the narrative but it is Dasul’s story that they affect and add to rather than detailing their own sub-plots, to the extent that even a poignantly melodramatic element in the latter stages of the film (featuring a supporting character’s narrative arc) is specifically, and noticeably, there only to show Dasul’s reaction to it.
However, what cannot be denied is that both Lovable and Treeless Mountain resolutely state that to understand a child (be they afflicted by illness or not) we must endeavour to see things as they see them, and as such both succeed in their aim with aplomb.
The final words spoken in Lovable are Dasul repeating “See… See”, and by the time the credits roll that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Lovable is without question Yoo Hae-jeong’s film from start to finish and even if this wasn’t her first major film role her portrayal of Dasul would still be considered utterly astonishing. Combined with the perfectly nuanced and beautiful storyline her incredible performance makes Lovable unmissable and at no point does it appear that she’s ‘acting’ in any respect.
The remainder of the cast play far smaller supporting roles but each gives an accomplished performance throughout.
Yoo Hae-jeong, Song Hyuk-jo, Ju Bu-jun
An utterly exquisite, poignant and ultimately uplifting film telling the tale of a little girl’s love for a snowman, Lovable deftly strips away the veil of illness to show how intelligent, creative and inspiring autistic children truly can be.
At the time of writing, 'Lovable' is available from major Region 3 DVD retailers, released by Eos. The film itself presented as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, with the original Korean language soundtrack being Dolby Digital 5.1.
Subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on the DVD extras.
- Director: Park Chul-soon
- Language: Korean
- Subtitles: English, Korean
- Country: South Korea
- Picture Format: NTSC
- Disc Format: DVD (1 Disc)
- Region Code: 3
- Rinning Time: 89mins (approx.)
- Publisher: Eos
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Film Council, KoBiz and film company AMUSE for allowing me to watch and re-watch 'Lovable' for the purposes of this review.